Fwd: Sitting in with Mingus by Lenni Brenne
dwalters at lanset.com
Mon Jul 21 20:27:46 MDT 2003
Thought you all would like to see this...Interesting essay on the Jazz
scene, LSD and nationalism...
July 19, 2003
Beneath the Underdog
Sitting in with Mingus By LENNI BRENNER
I don't remember the date in 1963 when I met Charles Mingus, but historians
will have no difficulty locating the exact spot: I was coming out of Tim
Leary's crapper, he was coming in.
Although everyone refers to him as Charlie, I don't. He hated the
diminutive. At any rate, we met again around Tim's kitchen table. Tim
served coffee, and I filled my corncob with Mafia-preferred weed. We and a
couple of Tim's young hanger-on's made small talk until the pipe came round
to Mingus. He puffed on it, passed it on, and calmly looked at his host:
"Tim, you're a very nice person, because the people who got us together only
know very nice people. But understand that me, Monk and Miles buy our acid
by the jar," the fingers of his left hand making a pint jar.
Point elegantly made, he continued: "When we started out we used to do
heroin on the lower east side, and we used to say 'Oh man, how hip we are.'
But the roaches were climbing up the walls." His right arm pointing to
those long dead native Manhattanites as they strolled up their ancestral
walls. "Now we're making over a $100,000 a year, each. Miles lives in a
renovated Russian Orthodox Church." (I doubt the Bostonians caught his
meaning, but that's the ne plus ultra of architectural sophistication.)
"You think you've found the philosopher's stone in LSD. But, for all the
acid we've done, I had to come to Boston to do a civil rights concert
because down South I'm still a nigger."
Silence. Ever see a for-real honest-to-God shit-eatin' grin? Tim had sat
down at his own table, a very nice guy, with one of the world's great
musicians as his very nice guest. Wouldn't you smile? But that silence got
to stretching, and that natural little smile froze on his face until
someone got up in pity and said something to end that singular scene.
Heraclitus said "expect the unexpected" and, by chance, there I was,
sitting across from one of the worldliest people on the planet, and one of
Why was I there for that extraordinary coven? On October 30, 1962, Stanley
Mosk, the Attorney-General of California, spoke on the Berkeley campus of
the University of California. I took him on in the question period, and
shredded the state's drug laws. That created a sensation on a campus
already boiling with civil rights agitation. I announced that I would have
more to say the next day at the traditional soapbox spot at Bancroft and
Telegraph. When I got there, comrades in the Young Socialist Alliance
ordered me to call off the speech. They had no position on drugs. As I was
their local oratorical star, anything I said would be taken as their views.
I made the speech, and got charged with violating discipline. The executive
committee couldn't get the 2/3rds vote needed to expel me, but they got 60%
to suspend my voting rights. I had to carry out YSA decisions without
objection until they lifted the suspension. Whereupon I resigned in
That and subsequent speeches defending the right to use marihuana, peyote
and other non-addicting drugs, while calling for medical clinics for
heroin-users, attracted substantial student support. We set up a Committee
for Narcotic Reform but it ultimately faded out.
In spite of our success in organizing good new people, none of the then
socialist and communist groupings saw the importance of what all political
persuasions now say is one of the major questions of our age. Not one gave
us any assistance. Given unreasoning sectarianism on their part, the
inexperience of most CNR members, and my failings, that pioneer effort was
foredoomed. But I then went east to try to build a national movement. In
1963 Harvard bounced Leary from its faculty over his work on LSD, and that
brought me to his table. Mingus had spent the night at Tim's.
>From everything I'd read about Tim, I felt like Mingus. But that didn't
prevent me from wanting to work with him. Building coalitions in defense of
people's rights means trying to work with folks holding very different,
sometimes very wrong ideas. But his lack of any comeback to Mingus's superb
commentary and its implied questions - not a wrong answer, no answer -
convinced me, yea unto a certainty, that nothing good could come of any
dealings with this ultimate drug-mystic space captain.
There was really nothing new about Tim. The starting point of his thinking
about drugs, if you can call it that, was Aldous Huxley's Doors of
Perception, then the Bible of the drug wackos. But if drugs open any door,
it is not to any true reality behind what is external to ourselves. They
bring to the fore unconscious instincts inside our psyche, normally held
down by the junk-yard dog of repression. That allows us to think in new
ways and about forbidden things. But it doesn't follow that the new
thoughts are necessarily correct. That depends on who you are, and what you
are thinking about.
As Mingus said, Leary thought he had the philosopher's stone in LSD. Mingus,
like most people, understood that if you have real enemies you must beat
them, or they beat you. "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" was a hit
song during W.W. II, and we all knew it. In that spirit, Mingus liked LSD,
but for him it was recreational. He knew that all the LSD in the world
couldn't end racism. However Leary wasn't Black. He didn't have to end
anything. All he had to do was get some LSD, "turn on, tune in, and drop
out," and he left the world's woes behind while he contemplated the cosmos.
While Sandor Rado's classic Freudian work on intoxicants, The Psychoanalysis
of Pharmacothymia, was correct in focusing on the narcissistic component of
drug use and abuse, it is important to remember that intoxicants are 1st off
a form of oral gratification. Oral fixation underlies a vast spectrum of
human expressions, including religion, especially in its fanatic forms.
Indeed Leary had been reading oriental religions. In 1965 he went to India
and became a Hindu. His LSD-induced narcissism 'confirmed' the oriental
notion of spiritual oneness of the universe behind the material world and
its conflicting appearances. To update Marx, if religion is the LSD of the
people, LSD became Leary's religion.
When our table-talk broke up, Mingus went into the front room. I came in a
minute later. I had caught Thelonius Monk, Max Roach and other jazz greats,
but at that time I was more interested in folk music than jazz. Though I
knew of Mingus's reputation as a great bassist, I had never heard him, even
on records. Now he played beautifully at an upright piano. I listened for
about 45 wonderful minutes.
He took a break and we got to talking about racism, Black nationalism and
Malcolm X, and civil rights. He had no time for nationalism. "People think
the white race and the black race are their teams. Those are the colors of
their jerseys." In context, he meant that, whatever the masses thought,
everybody did their individual thing.
Subsequent readings about him explained why that was so important to him. He
studied for five years with Herman Rheinschagen, formerly principal bassist
with the New York Philharmonic. And he had whites in his bands, among
others, Don Butterfield, a tuba player, and so what?: "He's colorless, like
all the good ones."
He went back to the piano. I listened for a bit, said goodbye to him and
Tim, and never saw him again. Preparatory to writing this, I've listened
closely to some of his records. He accurately evaluated his music. "Tijuana
Moods" is his best work. He was a good, not great, composer in the European
sense. However he most assuredly was the ultimate bassist and, as his
intimates knew then, and as I assure you now, a masterful pianist.
Mingus started his 1971 autobiography, Beneath The Underdog, with a
discussion between him and his shrink. He explained that he was three
people. Two of them were idiots but "one man stands forever in the middle,
unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he
sees to the other two." By chance, I had the unbelievably good fortune to
catch the guy in the middle, a great and modest person, as realistic about
life as he was serious about music.
Did I learn from him? Yes. But not enough.
Lenni Brenner is editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the
Nazis and a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair's new book The Politics
of Anti-Semitism (AK Press). He can be reached at BrennerL21 at aol.com
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